100 Moments: Drama in San Pedro Sula - U.S. MNT Qualifies for 2010 FIFA World Cup
When the United States Men's National Team visits Honduras for a FIFA World Cup Qualifier, you can expect several things: a close encounter, enough drama to fill a week of games and an electric atmosphere that is second to none in the world.
Take, for example, the U.S.’s most recent encounter at Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, on Oct. 10, 2009. The U.S. could not have mapped out a more frantic finish to clinch a spot in the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
The Americans' thrilling 3-2 qualifying triumph against Honduras had everything you wanted in a match, from momentum changes to unlikely heroes - striker Conor Casey - to surprising goats.
"I had gotten it pulled a couple of days earlier," Casey said. "I didn't make that trip. I wasn't sure about my future."
So, finding himself on the team, let alone starting, was unexpected, to say the least. Head coach Bob Bradley selected the 6-1, 170-pound forward over Jozy Altidore, who had a yellow card entering the match.
"Any time you get called into the National Team it's exciting," Casey said. “There were two games left and a lot on the line. We were going into a very crazy atmosphere in general. The coup that had taken place in Honduras, there were curfews on the streets, and the military in charge. It was definitely a pretty wild experience.”
"I was very surprised to play. Getting an opportunity to play, being able to score and help the team, it was definitely a very special night for me."
Casey's brace - a rarity for a U.S. player in Central America - turned out to be his only two international goals.
"Obviously, it would be nice to have had more but it is what it is," he said.
Casey, 31, who plays for the Philadelphia Union, has enjoyed many special career moments. He was a member of the side during the 2000 Sydney Games that became the first U.S. Men's Olympic Team to reach the medal round. He also played a vital role in the Colorado Rapids' run to the 2010 MLS Cup crown.
"For me and my family watching it, it was very memorable," he said of the match in Honduras. "I had a lot of good moments. It was definitely one of the ones near the top."
It was a memorable night for many.
Several months prior, a coup replaced President Manuel Zelaya. The country was slowly moving toward normalcy.
Four hours prior to kickoff, 45,000 of the Catrachos' faithful packed the stadium, entertaining themselves with songs, dances and chants.
Honduran fans teased American journalists with their prediction of the final score, "cuatro, cero," as the visiting media found their way toward the press area. The crowd was boisterous and noisy, especially for their heroes, who needed only a win to secure their first World Cup berth since the 1982 competition. The U.S. also needed a victory, with one game remaining in CONCACAF qualifying, to book its sixth consecutive World Cup berth.
Like many teammates, Casey was focused on the game, not the crowd.
"I really didn't notice anything but the game," he said. "You kind of get lost when you're on the field. But definitely driving to the game, you see the amount of people just going crazy. That was the first night they lifted the curfew in a week or two. You could see the elation that everyone on the streets had as they were also in a position where they could qualify."
After scoreless first half, the action was fast and furious over the final 45 minutes. Only two minutes into the second half, Honduras grabbed a 1-0 lead on Julio de Leon's free kick past goalkeeper Tim Howard.
But thee Americans roared back and took control of the match, connecting for the next three goals with Casey's first tally in the 55th minute. Charlie Davies won a 50-yard ball from Oguchi Onyewu and headed the ball high in the air. As it came down at the top of the six yard box, Casey spun in the air and challenged goalkeeper Noel Valladares, first making contact with the back of his head before the goalkeeper could get a hand on it. The ball bounced once before going into the empty goal. While a fair challenge, the goal was somewhat surprisingly allowed to stand despite the contact between Casey and Valladares, usually a regular whistle by the referee.
Only minute after coming on as a sub in the 64th minute, David Suazo almost gave the Hondurans the lead as he forced Howard to stretch high to knock away a point-blank shot.
Casey struck again in the 66th minute. Landon Donovan’s feed allowed Casey space in the penalty area where he split two defenders, faked a shot to get Valladares to go down and then calmly slotted the ball inside the right post for a 2-1 advantage.
Casey helped set up the third U.S. goal as De Leon fouled him some 22 yards out on the left side. Donovan launched a free kick that wound up in the upper right side of the net for a 3-1 lead in the 71st minute.
"The header was kind of a classic battling goal. I just wanted to challenge the keeper and somehow it found its way into the back of the net," Casey said. "The next one was just a nice little sequence and I found myself alone in front of the goal and I was able to put the goalie down, freeze him and slot it in. It was one of my favorite moments, knowing that at that time - there still was a lot of time to play still - we were up and we would qualify. It was extremely exciting."
The Hondurans refused to give up their own shot at qualifying for South Africa. They thought they had a goal by David Suarez in the 75th minute, but he was offside. Three minutes later Ramon Nunez cut the U.S. advantage to 3-2.
The Americans were helped by the fact that veteran Carlos Pavon fired an 87th-minute penalty kick over the net after a call for a handball in the area.
When referee Roberto Moreno of Panama whistled the game over, the Americans were elated.
"It was just great to be able to celebrate with a group of guys," Casey said. "You know what you've accomplished and you had your piece of the moment too. Everyone was just really thrilled for each other and themselves. It was definitely special."
Realizing both sides left everything on the pitch, the pro-Honduran crowd gave both teams a standing ovation.
"I think they realized maybe they needed us to win the next game, too," Casey said. "It maybe was a tactical move as well."
Perhaps it was.
Several days later, the Hondurans got their wish, courtesy of the U.S. The Central Americans did their job with a battling 1-0 victory at El Salvador. The U.S. helped out with a dramatic equalizing goal by Jonathan Bornstein five minutes into stoppage time, a 2-2 draw that dropped the Ticos into fourth-place and a playoff against Uruguay.
On Wednesday, the Americans and Honduras again will tussle at Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano. Given what transpired there in 2009, anything but a nail-biting drama, a rarefied atmosphere and perhaps an unlikely hero or two would fall short of many fans' expectations.
-- Michael Lewis